New Covenant Commitment
[Reading time: 14 minutes] Throughout history, entering covenant involved a solemn ceremony of commitment that typically included an animal sacrifice and an oath. Biblical covenants include the same elements.
Animal sacrifice was especially meaningful because it represented an unquestioning commitment to every aspect of the covenant relationship and terms. In the Old Testament, we see examples of the covenant parties cutting an animal in half, placing the sacrificial halves beside each other, then walking between the carcass halves. Because of this, the Hebrew text of the Old Testament specifically refers to “cutting covenant,” though modern translations usually refer to making, entering or agreeing to a covenant.
The act of passing between the carcass halves is called the “walk of death,” because of what it represents. The covenant partners pledge an unbreakable commitment to each other, which means they no longer consider only themselves. They sacrifice their independence, in a sense dying to themselves. The sacrifice also indicates that only death will separate one partner from the other, and if they separate, they figuratively will be as dead as the animal. It also was symbolic of what happens to a person who breaks the covenant by acting selfishly, not accommodating their partner’s needs, interests, safety or well-being. For example, God made a clear statement about this in his covenant with Israel: “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces” (Jer. 34:18, NIV). There may be a few exceptions to biblical covenant ceremonies including an animal sacrifice – consider David and Jonathan’s covenant, or God’s covenant with David – but physical sacrifice and shedding blood were typical. So typical that “cutting covenant” requires shed blood or a suitable substitute such as wine or grape juice, the “blood of grapes.”
As the people entering covenant pass between the carcass halves, they pronounce an oath of unconditional commitment to their partner’s well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want. This is an exchanging of vows; a solemn, unbreakable affirmation binding the covenant partners. An oath “confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument” (Heb. 6:16). Partners of human covenants in Old Testament times called upon God to be a legal witness of their oaths. By doing so, they made God the third party of the covenant, so it was nonnegotiable and could not be altered.
The original text of the New Testament consistently uses a Greek noun translated “oath” in the context of covenants. It refers to a solemn, binding promise of specific actions or behavior. A related verb translated “swear” simply means to take an oath. We frequently see these words in New Testament statements about covenants. For example, David was a prophet and knew that God had promised (sworn to) him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne (Acts 2:30). God swore an oath to Abraham regarding his descendants, Israel (Luke 1:72-73).
The oath and animal sacrifice appear in many biblical covenants.
God told Abram (before changing his name to Abraham) his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and occupy the land where he lived (Gen. 15:5, 7). When Abram asked for assurance, God directed him to bring specific animals to him. Abram apparently knew what was about to happen because he cut the animals in two and arranged the halves opposite each other (vv. 8-11). Abram fell into a deep sleep, and “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’” (vv. 12, 17-18). The phrase “made a covenant” in the Hebrew text literally is “cut covenant.” This passage describes God’s literal presence as he passed between the sacrifice halves as a smoking firepot (smoke: Exod. 19:18; Isa. 6:3; Rev. 15:8) and a blazing torch (fire: Exod. 14:24; Num. 14:14; Rev. 1:14; 2:18;19:12). God unilaterally performed the covenant ceremony and gave his oath, so he alone is responsible for its fulfillment. Abram’s role was simply to prepare the sacrifice. He was dependent on God to fulfill his oath, because its fulfillment would occur 400 years later (vv. 13-15). Genesis 12 introduces this covenant in broad terms (12:1-3) and chapter 17 provides additional details (17:1-16). Luke also refers to the covenant oath God swore to Abraham (Luke 1:72-73).
God’s covenants with Israel required both personal and animal sacrifices. The Israelites were to sacrifice their independence, be completely devoted to him and have no other gods (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 4:29; 10:12). When they cut covenant, they sacrificed bulls as instructed and Moses splashed some of the blood on the sacrificial altar and the people (Exod. 24:4-8). The text describes the animal sacrifices as fellowship offerings to the Lord (24:5). The Hebrew word translated “fellowship offerings” refers to peace, alliance or friendship offerings; that is, fellowship offerings ratified and served as reminders of their respective covenants. God swore to drive the original inhabitants out of the land and establish their borders (Exod. 23:27-31), and the people vowed to do everything he said (Exod. 19:8; 24:7). Later references reveal the leaders performed the “walk of death” by passing between the halves of a sacrificed calf (Jer. 34:18-19).
God made a covenant promise to David about his descendants reigning on his throne. “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, ‘I have sworn to David my servant, I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations’” (Ps. 89:3-4). Near the end of his life, David reflected on God’s vow: “Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part?” (2 Sam. 23:5). About 400 years later, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah confirming his irrevocable covenant promise (Jer. 33:20-21). That promise clearly wasn’t fulfilled by David’s human descendants, but will be in his ultimate successor, Jesus (Luke 1:32-33; 3:23, 31; Acts 13:22-23; Rev. 22:16). He will reign on David’s throne from Jerusalem over his kingdom forever (Isa. 9:7; Zech. 14:16) and we will reign with him (Rev. 22:3-5). That will be fulfillment of God’s irrevocable covenant vow to David.
The covenant of marriage also includes sacrifice and an oath. When the religious leaders of his day asked Jesus about divorce, he began by quoting Genesis 2. “Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:4-6). The covenant sacrifice of marriage is the loss of individualism; the two become united as one, not just two individuals in relationship. The oath of marriage includes faithfulness to their covenant partner, a commitment to their well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want. The two are unconditionally committed to each other, regardless of circumstances, and separated only by death (see 1 Cor. 7:39). These terms are typical of covenants between people. However, marriage is unique because it helps us understand on a human level how we relate to our covenant relationship with God.
The new covenant God makes with us is a suzerain covenant, in which the superior partner dictates the covenant terms. We are free to accept his terms and enter relationship with him, or reject his terms in their entirety and live for ourselves. Unfortunately, many people who consider themselves Christians ignore the covenant and continue living for themselves.
The new covenant is an absolute and unchangeable certainty, made and guaranteed by God the Father with the Son of Man. If we had made the covenant with God, we would be responsible for fulfilling our part and we would have broken it almost immediately. This is why it was essential that Jesus be fully human. He repeatedly called God his Father, indicating he was the Son of God (John 5:17-18). However, the term, “sons of God,” includes all sentient beings God created, including angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7, with the Hebrew term “sons of God” translated as “angels”); even those who sinned (Gen. 6:2, 4). Jesus repeatedly emphasized his humanity by calling himself the Son of Man.
The book of Hebrews suggests God the Father made covenant with the human Jesus, by quoting God as saying, “today I have become your Father” (Heb. 1:5). God becomes people’s Father when they enter covenant with him. God made a similar statement when Jesus became a high priest of the covenant (Heb. 5:5) and as a result of God’s oath he is a priest forever (Heb. 7:21). That makes Jesus the guarantee of the new covenant, a better covenant than the first (Heb. 7:22).
This demonstrates God the Father’s commitment to the new covenant! The only way we can break covenant with him is to reject him and what he’s done for us. Even then, he’ll pursue us and invite us to return. That’s the nature of his love for us and his commitment to his word.
The Son of God initially made a personal sacrifice in our behalf by divesting himself of his divinity. He chose not to use his equality with God to his advantage (Phil. 2:6) and agreed to be made lower than the angels for a little while (Heb. 2:9) and take the very nature of a servant (2 Cor. 8:9). He “made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7), which literally means he abased himself, divesting himself of his status and rank along with all his rights and privileges. He gave up his divine nature to become human like us in every way except sinless (John 1:14; Heb. 2:14, 17). The last night of his human life, he asked Father to restore the glory he had before the world began (John 17:5). Conclusion: While Jesus was on earth as a human, he was fully and only human. God restored his divinity when he rose from the dead, so Jesus now is fully God and fully human.
If Jesus were still divine in any way during his earthly life, he wouldn’t be an effective example for us. We could always dismiss our failure to be like him and do what he did since he was still God and we are not. Now, however, he has returned to the Father and will do whatever we ask (John 14:12-13), so we can do what he did and even greater things (John 14:12). Jesus now is experiencing the covenant in its entirety in heaven and we’ll join him later. This was all Father’s plan, set in motion literally before time began (1 Cor. 2:7).
God entered covenant with all of us collectively through Jesus the man, rather than with each of us individually. Jesus lived according to his absolute commitment to God, saying and doing only what his Father said and did (John 5:19; 14:24). Jesus the man showed us what it means to be a human in covenant relationship with God.
Jesus was the covenant sacrifice, the lamb of God that sealed the new covenant (John 1:29, 36). Just as animal sacrifices of covenants in antiquity released the animals’ blood, Jesus’ blood was poured out when he was flogged before his crucifixion. The previous night, when Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples, he gave them a cup of wine and instructed them to drink from it. He then told them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28; 1 Cor. 11:25); forgiveness of sins is a primary blessing of the new covenant. Jesus’ blood is the only cleansing agent for sin (1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7). Through his blood, we are forgiven (Eph. 1:7), justified (Rom. 5:9), reconciled to God (Col. 1:20), brought near to him (Eph. 2:13), made holy (Heb. 13:12), healed (1 Pet. 2:24) and made victorious over Satan (Rev. 12:10-11).
Jesus became human for us at his birth, then he became sin for us at his death (2 Cor. 5:21). His was a complete death, not just physical, because he experienced complete spiritual separation from God (Matt. 27:46); spiritual death is the ultimate death. After his physical death, he descended to the realm of the dead where he preached to dead humans so they also would hear the good news of the kingdom (1 Pet. 3:19; 4:6). God didn’t abandon him in the realm of the dead, but resurrected him before his body could decay (Acts 2:27, 31). Now Jesus is seated next to the Father in heaven, interceding for us (Col. 3:1; Rom. 8:34).
This reveals the extent of Jesus’ commitment to the covenant. He “gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). And he did it all to make it possible for us to enter covenant with God if we choose to embrace what he did for us.
Just as God the Father and the Son made sacrifices to make covenant relationship possible for us, entering that covenant requires us to sacrifice, too. Yes, “Jesus did it all” to make it possible; now it’s up to us to do our part. We begin by humbly acknowledging that being a “good person” isn’t sufficient and we deserve to pay the penalty for our sin, then accepting Jesus’ sacrifice in our behalf. In gratitude, we renounce our independence, because we cannot fulfill our covenant responsibilities by our own efforts; we even need God’s help to live in covenant relationship with him.
It’s natural to be concerned about our own needs, interests and desires; that is, natural to worldly, ungodly thinking. Everything the world produces or promotes encourages us to focus on what we want, need or enjoy; even what scares us. In contrast, covenant commitment requires us to sacrifice our selfishness, “crucify the flesh” (Gal. 5:24) and consider ourselves “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11). This isn’t a one-time action because, until Jesus takes us home, we’ll struggle with selfish desires, interests and needs. As we develop spiritually, however, we’ll become less self-centered and increasingly committed to our covenant partner, trusting him to care for us.
All sin is motivated by self-centeredness, so we must ruthlessly address all our sinful thinking and behavior, which interfere with our covenant relationship. We can easily slip back into self-centeredness, trying to govern that relationship on our own terms and focusing on covenant blessings that satisfy our very human desires. This is why we need to consider ourselves crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), as though the previous “us” died with him on the cross (Rom. 6:6) and we’ve been “made alive” as new people (1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:24). We used to be slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17, 20), but Jesus paid the price to set us free and now we belong to him, not ourselves (Rom. 14:8; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; Gal. 5:24). Just as Jesus’ death made the new covenant possible, our death to self permits us to enter that covenant.
The more we realize how much God has done for us, the easier it is to reject our self-focused thoughts and remain faithful and loyal to him. We become willing to pledge covenant loyalty to him, so his interests take precedence over ours and we no longer live for ourselves, but for him (see 2 Cor. 5:15).
Repentance is a key to covenant living. The Greek word translated “repent” in the New Testament is a compound word. The first part means “transform” and the second refers to one’s mind, how we think, what we think about – perspective, standards, values, priorities and attitudes. Much of what the New Testament says requires us to change the way we think. A renewed mind (Rom. 12:2) or mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) is based on what God says regardless of what anyone or anything else says. If, instead, we focus on what secular and social media say, we’re programming our minds with the wrong content and we’ll think like the world, not like God. Anything that contradicts what God says is deceptive and we must adamantly reject it; repentance is an absolute necessity! As covenant partners with God, we need to sacrifice our ungodly thinking and stop living for ourselves. And we do that by focusing on our covenant partner and his kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” should be our focus (Luke 11:2) and our motivation should be to honor and please our covenant partner.
Water baptism is symbolic of our covenant sacrifice, a public declaration and personal reminder that we have died to sin and risen to a new life. In the new covenant, water baptism has replaced the old covenant requirement of circumcision as the sacrament of entrance into the relationship (Col. 2:11-12; Rom. 5:2-4). This is an important physical, ceremonial act that symbolizes what has happened to us spiritually.
God gave up his independence by voluntarily becoming dependent on us. There are things he will not do because he delegated them to us and other things he will not do until we have done our part. We gave up our independence by choosing to obey him and rely on him to produce better results or the worthwhile results we cannot. Personal sacrifice and dependence on our partner is a key aspect of covenant relationship.
People entering covenant pronounce an oath of unconditional commitment to their partner’s well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want. This is an exchange of vows, a solemn, unbreakable affirmation binding the covenant partners.
God the Father swore Jesus would be an eternal priest (Heb. 7:21). Because Jesus, our covenant brother, is fully human like us, we’re included in God’s vow of priesthood. That makes us a kingdom and priests (Rev. 1:6; 5:10), which includes reigning as a covenant family with Jesus through the millennium and then forever (Rev. 20:6; 22:4-5). That is part of God’s vow to us. Other vows or promises he makes to us are too numerous to list in this article. See Matthew 6:25-34, for a partial list.
We may not realize it, but we also pronounce a covenant oath every time we make a specific statement. “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we’re declaring the Son of God is our Lord, master, owner and ruler; those are the meanings of the Greek word translated “Lord” in that verse. That means he’s all that matters, not us. That simply is a pledge of unconditional commitment to our covenant partner. Notice the connection between declaring Jesus is Lord and receiving the covenant blessing of salvation. When we act as our own master by making decisions that benefit or please primarily ourselves, we violate our covenant oath. Our covenant is a legal relationship defined by legal terms, so violating it has legal consequences. We’ll examine the results of such behavior in a later article.
Our covenant relationship with God also affects our relationship with his kingdom. Consider the parable Jesus told about a master who left one of his servants in charge of his household while he was away. If that servant were to satisfy his master’s expectations by taking care of household business as expected, he’d be put in charge of everything the master owned. If, instead, the servant were to use his new authority to satisfy his own ego and desires, the master would punish him severely (Matt. 24:45-51). Because Jesus applied this parable to the end times when he would return, it clearly relates to how we handle kingdom matters in his absence. God expects us to conduct kingdom business according to his standards, not our own. Doing so would honor the needs, interests and desires of our covenant partner, including what we do in his kingdom. People in covenant serve each other by lovingly and gratefully do things for each other.
As always, Jesus set the standard for us as a human. He worked in Father’s name as his agent (John 10:25, 37), did what Father wanted (4:34; 6:38), sought to please him (5:30; 8:29) and faithfully represented his nature (14:9). We’re also in covenant with Father and should strive to serve him the same way Jesus did, lovingly and gratefully doing things for him.
When we enter covenant with God, we’re to repent by changing our focus from ourselves to our covenant partner. As each partner focuses on the other, they experience a bonding, a unity and they form compatible perspectives and motivations. As we conform our thinking to God’s written and spoken word, we experience a similar bonding and unity with him.
“If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God” (1 John 4:15). The Greek word translated “lives” means remains, stays or lives/abides/resides. The word translated “in” means in, one with or in union with; so the phrase, “lives in,” refers to a close personal association. Jesus said the same thing: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” (John 15:4), where “remain in” is identical in the original text to “lives in.”
There is to be total unity in God’s kingdom! That includes unity among all of us who have entered the kingdom: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10).
Such unity with God and among ourselves can only exist if we repent by conforming our thoughts to what he says. But it’s well worth our effort because unity with God allows us to experience greater intimacy with him, fuller expression of every covenant element, and greater involvement in his kingdom. Living a self-centered life, even as a Christian, couldn’t begin to compare with that!
May we discover the absolute joy of living totally for God, our covenant partner, no longer living for ourselves.